Our guests have discovered that choosing the right goals—not to mention sticking with them—is a challenge. Over the years, they’ve stumbled upon obstacles and insights along the way—and in the process they have provided lessons for all of us.
Here are staff-picked highlights from the Science of Happiness podcast this year. We hope you can learn something from these science-backed tips to achieve more well-being and happiness as you pursue your own goals in 2020.
As part of her New Year’s resolution to have more joyful and fulfilling experiences in life, Lisa Genova (author of the 2007 novel, Still Alice) aimed to carve out time each day to do something she loves—a practice that psychology professor Lahnna Catalino calls “prioritizing positivity.” Studies suggest that folks who prioritize positivity experience more positive emotions and are generally more content with their lives.
Ironically, Genova found, trying to feel joyful every single moment can create feelings of discontent. The lesson? Instead of aiming to control our feelings, we would do better to organize our schedules around activities that naturally make us feel good—but without worrying if you can’t pack everything in, and accepting whatever feelings you have in the course of the activity.
So, if happiness is your goal, pull out your planners and Google Calendars. Make some daily time for something that makes you smile. But remember that not everything will go according to plan—and that’s OK.
As we work toward any goal, it’s easy to find ourselves stuck in self-criticism. The How Would You Treat a Friend? practice is a 15-minute exercise where you think about your own insecurities and struggles, and respond to them as if you were talking to a close friend.
According to Kristen Neff, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, self-compassion practices like this one can boost our self-compassion by as much as 43 percent. People who practice self-compassion feel more motivated to achieve their goals. Rather than being self-indulgent or complacent, they actually improve their coping skills and are more resilient to stress.
Our guest Samuel Getachew tried this out. He was a high school senior, facing the stress of exams and college applications. He took on this practice to find some relief from his own self-critical thoughts. “I feel like sometimes I don’t afford myself nearly as much sympathy as I do for other people,” he said on the Science of Happiness. “I sometimes forget to be kind to myself, or to congratulate myself.”
It worked for Getachew. Next time you’re down on yourself in 2020, try treating yourself like a best friend—with warmth and kindness.
When the going gets tough, another way to stay on track with our goals is to remind ourselves of our highest values. Physician Shaili Jain took on a practice called Affirming Important Values practice, where she tried to affirm what was most important to her whenever she felt defensive or threatened. “When you affirm your values, you have to make tough choices,” she said in the episode. “You can’t be all things to all people.”
This practice is a way to ground ourselves in what matters most. It can also inspire us to make changes to our life, without getting defensive about what’s “wrong” with our current state. If we’re confronted with something that’s difficult to swallow—for example, criticism from loved ones or coworkers—keeping our values in mind can help us be more open to feedback. It makes us feel capable and gives us a broader perspective that can lead to healthier choices.
There are always obstacles on the way to achieving a goal. Reminding yourself why these goals matter to you, your family, or society can help you stay in the fight.
Poet and “recovering pessimist” Maggie Smith tried the Finding Silver Linings practice for 10 minutes a day. That is, she wrote down something “bad” that occurred, like missing the bus, and intentionally focused on the positive aspect of the event, like the extra exercise from running to catch it.
“In the moments where I wanted to be like, ‘Agh! I can’t believe I had to deal with this today,’” she would take a breath and think “about A) how much worse it could be, but B) also just all of those things that I have going on in my life that made it possible to deal with it.”
Research suggests that this helps us feel more in control of our life and more optimistic. Even if you don’t identify as an optimist, keep reading; it even works for pessimists! Pessimists who practiced Finding Silver Linings daily experienced fewer depressive symptoms than those who simply journaled about other topics.
Taking the time to physically write down your silver linings could give you a different perspective on the hassles of your daily life, or even let the hassles help you achieve your goals.
You don’t have to be an expert outdoorsman to benefit from the practice of Noticing Nature. Simply observing a tree next to a bus stop, a flower poking through the sidewalk, or a sunbeam through your windshield can reduce your blood pressure, muscle tension, and stress hormones—and even make you feel more creative and alive.
Iraq war veteran Stacy Bare joined the Science of Happiness to describe rock climbing with a friend. “We didn’t go all the way to the top,” he told our host, Dacher Keltner. “We’re moving very slow. And all of a sudden I couldn’t move any further. I was paralyzed with fear. I started sobbing that I was afraid. And I think it was that moment when I realized that without the help of chemicals, alcohol, or drugs, for the last several hours I had not been thinking about anything other than the now.”
That rock-climbing expedition made an enormous positive impact on Bare’s life. “I think that was the first time in a few years that I believed it is okay,” he said on the show. “And I am okay.”
Maybe you too could benefit from making a resolution to notice nature poking through our built environment. In the end, your brain will thank you.
Heights. Public speaking. Death. Life is scary. But facing our fears can be the key to happiness.
Zoe Francesca is an end-of-life doula, and noticed that aging folks who hadn’t confronted their fears stayed afraid. For our podcast, Francesca confronted her own overwhelming fear of heights. She found that she could transcend the way she responded to fear by creating new experiences—from climbing stairs, to a tower, to a sky tram. The Overcoming a Fear practice is intensive, but it can be ultimately cathartic for your everyday fears.
Francesca says that these experiences gave her two things: “One, a deep appreciation for everyday life that I just didn’t have before. And the other thing it’s really shown me that today is all we have. We really don’t know what’s happening tomorrow so let’s make today the most meaningful that we can.”
If your 2020 resolution is to conquer a fear, our advice is to take it slow and in increments. With patience, the thing that scares you the most might not seem so bad in 2020.